Joe Pugliese has photographed scientists, authors, performers, creative geniuses, and everyday people and documented their fascinating stories. His photographs of prominent and prosaic peoples have garnered recognition and respect, such as earning him the APA National 2018 Photo Contest “Best of Show.” Space for Arts was fortunate to speak with Joe in between his travels to capture the culture and stories of our time.

What has been a favorite part of your career?

I think meeting people in the public eye – not so much celebrities, but people who are doing interesting things that are culturally or technologically ahead of their time. Steve Jobs stands out in my mind as an example. I was lucky to meet him, and in a normal world he would still be with us, making all sorts of inventions. That situation reminds me how important it is to properly document the people in front of us and around us. There are no guarantees – Steve was taken too young as many are. But it does show the significance of recording our culture.

Meeting such significant individuals for a portrait session seems potentially intense. How do you approach photographing them?

I think I try to approach them all the same. I try to focus on what it feels like when anyone meets someone new and the different factors at play when you are interpreting personality in a matter of minutes. I keep an open mind and notice what they are actually like, or what they are feeling, or what mood they are in. Then, that’s what I document. Rather than trying to capture a lifetime, a history, or a reputation, I am looking to capture a moment.

In past situations, I’ve thought of devices to use to maybe get people to open up or bend to what I have in mind. But, in the last few years, my work has become better because I am responding to what I am literally witnessing rather than manipulating. It takes a total openness and presence of mind instead of overlaying a concept. I mean, something you thought to do might not be appropriate when you finally meet. Regardless of if it’s the photo you wanted, you have to let it go and match the situation at hand.

 You’ve said that your portrait works are generally commissioned from magazines. How does merging a magazine brand and a portrait come into play?

Yes, a lot of portrait commissions come from magazines because the subjects are trying to promote something; a story, a business, whatever it may be. When I photographed Steve Jobs, he had just introduced the iPhone. Because of this, sometimes you need to tell a story, you need a setting, all things to show who a person is. There are some editorial choices to be considered. For example, when I photographed Elon Musk, he was sitting in a Tesla with a rocket behind him.

What are the challenges to the industry today?

The challenges are also the exciting parts of it. Every sector of the photo industry faces their own challenges, but for what I do, it comes down to who controls the curation of who we are celebrating or showcasing. And how can I as a photographer contribute my point of view on society or culture in this curation? The challenge is aligning with publications and online entities that support the thoughtful curation of who the subjects are, instead of things that fly off the newsstand or get the most Instagram likes. We have a responsibility to present thoughtful representations of what defines our culture.

It is careful and intentional documentation. There were many stages of my career where I was focused on what looked prettiest and will get me hired again. But I want to go beyond that and focus on more importance and more reach. I want to expose things and celebrate those who haven’t previously or traditionally been a part of the media. To be a force for change in whatever way we can as image makers.

Why is the photography industry still relevant and important?

It’s more important than ever. We are inundated by thoughtless photography all the time which means there is all the more reason to elevate the medium using people who are well-versed in distilling what a culture means and looks like. There is a responsibility to those who have the ability to photograph and represent people and culture to make good choices. We must push back when the industry is stagnated to thoughtfully capture and document our times

What is the perfect studio to you?

For me it’s about a delicate balance. When I do a portrait session, there’s space you need as well as space you don’t need. A studio should be versatile and spacious, but intimate at the same time. It’s intangible, but there’s just the feeling that something special can happen here. I know it right away when I walk into a space. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but when I find it – I go back again and again.